The Other Coin: Greek and Roman Origins of St. Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is an excellent time to consider just where the Cupid guy came
from. Cupid (Latin) or Eros (Greek) was the son of Ares (Mars) and Aphrodite
(Venus). Aphrodite as the goddess of love had her principle temple on the Isle of
Cyprus, where the rose, her flower was first cultivated. She was said to have arisen
from the castrated Uranus in a sea of foam, arriving on Cyprus on a seashell,
something like Botticelli depicted. She has origins in the Phoenician goddesses
Astarte or Ishtar often condemned in the Bible for her orgiastic rites and sacred
prostitution. Needless to say she and her temples are often depicted on coins of
ancient Greece . The cult statue of Cyprus is found standing on coins of the
Ptolemies. She often is associated with the rose and dove. The Greeks credited her
with starting the Trojan War when she offered Paris, Helen as a prize for judging her
the most beautiful goddess. Eros appears as a winged youth or teenager, who used
his bow to smite victims with passionate love for a particular woman. After all, as
Plutarch noted, there were slaves for daily use, heitaria for a good time and wives
for producing heirs, but love for a particular woman was considered an illness. In
fact, as in most societies women were considered the sexual aggressors as the
womb had a hunger for male seed according to Hippocrates and Galen, the great
Greek doctors. Men were just going about their daily business until struck down by
Cupid's arrows, carrying the disease of love.
Roman coins also prominently displayed Venus and Cupid, especially since Julius
Caesar claimed decent from Venus and Aeneas from the Trojan War. Caesar
displayed head of Venus and a biga of cupids on his coins among other images.
Venus was also a popular image for empresses to put on their coins with Cupid or
their own children. The teenager Eros, seemed to get younger on several Roman
coins, but Cupid was still primarily a teenage god from Julius Caesar even to the
Christian Constantius II.
Apuleius gave us the most engaging myth of the union of Eros and Psyche (the
soul), following the teachings of Plato. Eros falling in love with the young princess
Psyche against his mother’s wishes is finally found out and Aphrodite banishes the
young loves until Psyche completes the tasks of sorting a huge pile of grain (learning
categories or logic), gathering golden fleece (work), and getting Persephone’s
(Queen of Hades) beauty box (conquering age and death) . Completing these tasks
Eros and Psyche are married and ascend to heaven, giving the way of love found in
Plato, Corinthians in the New Testament, and in Dostoevsky’s famous statement the
“Beauty will save the world” another literary expression, which is how Venus and
Cupid got mixed up with St. Valentine’s Day.
In the early Middle Ages, Plato and the New Testament idea of love rising from the
erotic (eros) to friendship (filia) to self-sacrificing, altruistic love of God (agape)
was expressed in the courtly love of Romance. Queen and married noble women
were exalted, not as erotic objects, but as chaste friends requiring courtesy (acting
in a courtly manner) and chaste, courtly behavior was an introduction to a love of
others and pointed to a love of God. This was when the worship or adoration of the
Virgin Mary became popular. St. Valentine, a 2nd century martyr was chose as a
patron for these new ideas since he had written love letters as he awaited martyrdom
and his saint day was near the old Roman Lupercalia, which had men and some
women running naked through the street lashing women on their wrists to insure
easy childbirth and pregnancy. The Wolf (lupus) festival was in honor of the wolf
foster mother of the founders of Rome — Romulus and Remus. The lashes were
called Februa  from which we get the month February. The popular ceremony as
absorbed in St. Valentine’s courtesies, now cards and candies.
Numismatically yours, David Elliott
Statue of Aphrodite in a cult setting
Statue of Aphrodite of Cyprus
Julius Caesar
Mars/cupids pulling Venus in chariot
Empress Plautilla
Plautilla/cupid in front of Venus
Cupid and Psyche